Ailbhe Darcy – Imaginary Menagerie
Bloodaxe, 64pp, £8.95, 2011, ISBN: 9781852249014
Darcy’s book is intriguing. In general, because of its sheer energy, and the way in which it wears its influences; and, more specifically to me (as a reader but also as an editor of Kaffeeklatsch), in that it seems to exemplify – in its strengths and its weaknesses – the kk dictum that ‘Poetry should describe the world’. I guess this is just an unusually conceited way of saying that the poems of Darcy’s first collection live or die on their ability to transcend their own internal concerns.
What’re the poems’ ‘internal concerns’, then? When they’re at home? Well, they’re various, but my point really is the extent to which the poems are able to point outwards, to cease being clever machines of metre and rhyme, and begin to be snide-but-beautiful detectives, and dancers, and snitches, and mechanics. God knows I’m not one of those that expects transparency of poems – that we forget we’re reading, somehow – but Imaginary Menagerie is at its best (and I will get on to it’s excellent best, eventually) when it isn’t weighed down by a palpable feeling of an author worrying at the edges of the poems. I’m talking about the things which stand out as decisions made strikingly by the poet, rather than the narrator of the poems; of tricks which, by their very trickishness, fail to evoke anything other than an author wracking her brain (albeit with unusual success) for interesting tricks.
The most forceful example is a reliance upon a phrase-bank of common colloquialisms and odd turns-of-phrase, which can occasionally become overpowering: “would topping one inventor really halt invention? Still, / it was a flick worth making the leap for”. ‘Topping’, ‘flick’, ‘making the leap’: the idiom we’re given is some caricature ‘real person’, mixing metaphors with such glee that the language que language is forced into our faces. “hands haynish on the wheel, a life spent / making things kushti, horse sense.”, runs ‘Unheimlich’, and then “spread-eagled in sneachta, glittering / fish scales, / hospital numnah”. Even the best poems aren’t completely free from this burden: “We are up to our pits in Sunday papers” begins ‘Panoptican’, an opener seeming only to be chosen because it’s less predictable than more prosaic description – we might be surrounded by or even buried in Sunday papers – or, alternatively, a more complex, abstract, or evocative relation of the information. It is the same impulse that points Darcy towards ‘delft’ over ‘china’, say, or “Dressed to slay” over “Dressed to kill”.
Once noticed, it’s irritating and frequent. Of course liveliness is essential in making a poet’s language entertaining, worthy. But here ‘liveliness’ is a presiding law, and stands too often on the toes of emotional force or readerly (writerly) engagement. Paul Muldoon is the obvious antecedent here: he’s made a living from this kind of ‘quirky’ admixture of emotional punch and extreme colloquial intrusion (“By the time they force an entry / he’ll have skedaddled”); from the principal of cryptic substitution. But Muldoon takes as a major theme the ways in which language can limit, shape and direct us; Darcy has relatively little to say on the subject (at least not formally, in this way).
Where Darcy does have something to say, is regarding our ability to understand the personal and momentary as part of the political or overarching. If the impish gathering of gaudily-interesting words can ring hollow, it can also be put usefully to work. It is the mischievous innocence with which ‘Shoes’ wanders – its joyful exploration of what ‘Duck Shoes’ might be (“Not duck, shoes! / Nor shoes for a pet we might keep in a kennel”), and the apparently guileless trailing off into the isolation of sexual abandon (“raise my two legs like arms raised to cheer / over both of our grinning heads again, my dear”) – this mischievous innocence which sets the stage so nicely for the narrator to poignantly discount the sufferings of women throughout history. “Those cork stones / that rubbed a woman’s sole to heck, the women still / barefooting it across Africa” are relegated to justification for the narrator’s purchase of the shoes, “€300 a pair, / not each”. Even further down, the Iraq war tugs uncomfortably at the corners of the poem, in the dedication to Muntazer al-Zaidi, and in “the nine-year old girl who stepped with both / of her feet onto a land mine last week – / but not us”. And so the poem treads its involving line between affirmatory romp and fierce condemnation of interest in anything so frivolous. Those ‘grinning heads” of the final line, those legs ‘raised like arms’ flicker in and out, symbolising first one of these ideas and then the other.
And it is this uncomfortable double-exposure feel which marks all of Darcy’s best work. ‘Animal Biscuits’ begins with what would be a clumsily unsubtle repudiation of the torture of Iraqi prisoners if it weren’t for a skillfully painful, thudding repetition:
In the photograph you flaunt all your teeth
to signal you are not grown unwholesome
by the violence you do in the photograph.
You are hazing an Iraqi, working towards the Führer,
behaving as animals, violently absent from
your own photograph.
But, intriguingly, the poem veers wildly away from the subject – or does so only apparently. And suddenly, with a brilliant subtlety, it’s displaying by its utter hauntedness the horror of what’s been described. Together with the epigraph concerned with the reification of people to “just metaphors”, every use of the word ‘animal’ brings back that fifth line, and then every mention of an animal (so that “a squirrel spills out of a tree // onto gravel to wrench me awake”, and we shudder), and then everything, every muted cadence. So that when the poem ends “biscuits with nuts in / biscuits with butter, // each careful measure of what Alice adds.” the non-sequitur buzzes with unspoken malignancy.
It’s very, very good, and it’s the way the poem draws elements of the world – politics, news stories – into the unfathomable complexity and flux of personal experience that makes it so wonderful. ‘Caw Poem’ does the same with Poetry; ‘Panoptican’ deals in the power/affliction of modern media, balancing the crazinesses of the world (“When people ran / from the falling towers, they stopped / to buy cameras”) against our own horrors, of “Matthew, / who died last night at last of madness” (the latter line, incidentally, recalling in its shape and perfect metre that most lovely archetype of iambic pentameter “and every fair from fair sometime declines”, which is even nicer. But we can’t hold not-being-as-perfect-as-Shakespeare against Darcy – here and elsewhere the precision of her rhythmic control is really strong). But it’s so sad, so well done, and the final lines – spoiler alert – are heartbreaking: “I stay clear / of mirrors, newspapers sometimes. I live / as best I can. I do the awful maths.” This final phrase is once again drawing on an epigraph – this time from Henry James – and doing so extremely effectively.
Other times it isn’t so successful, and the entertaining ‘Socks’ is merely entertaining, feeling like a poetic restating of its epigraph. Similarly ‘Market Square, Five Years After’ feels simple:
shampooing my soul over and over
because I’m worth it. When I step out
of the shower it’s so quiet I wonder
if something has happened outside while we
were in here, if everyone has gone away to war
The pop-culture, the wry comedy, the leaping to souls and apocalypse – it sounds like the Mersey Sound. Which is fun, but it’s fifty years too late to be really interesting. And again, the poems occasionally – as in ‘Clues’ – feel slightly as if Darcy is ducking away from political issues into personal solutions, rather than running the two together as she can do so effectively.
In fact, my feeling is that all of these problems come from the same root as the aforementioned (aforediscussed?) bad habit of leaping to the glitz of unusual but recontextualised cliché. That is, the poems seem occasionally to lack confidence in their own abilities: to find solutions, to be complex enough, to be plain old-fashioned beautiful. But they can be – can do all of these things, exceptionally so. In the end, despite the fair haul of imperfections in Imaginary Menagerie, we should very very much look forward to Darcy’s next collection, whenever that may come.
(and, neat as that would be as a review-ending – and loathe though I am to draw accusations of J.A.B.B.I.C. – can I just beg that Bloodaxe ask someone else to do the design-work for Ailbhe Darcy’s second? Because this one is just horrible. Truly, truly ugly)
(Wait, not enough. Apt? Yes, perhaps. Amusing? Yes, maybe. Monstrously ugly? Oh yes, yes, yes)